I'm excited to shine a new light on this group of cities. Many of these places have been cast as dinosaurs slowly decaying, on their way to extinction, but they still have much to offer to the right people. Other places are doing pretty well, but often don't receive the attention they deserve.
Watch the slideshow here.
The idea of "Opportunity Cities" hit me as I was visiting some of the places on this list. These cities have been battling serious issues like crime and unemployment, often for decades. With a tenuous economic situation, there has been a shortage of tax revenue for city services like education, water, parks, museums, health care, fire and police departments.
Despite these challenges, I felt a certain energy in these cities. When we're pushed to the wall we are willing to take chances, and that is what I saw. Unlike the gridlock that is paralyzing much of our country, these places have moved beyond the fear of change to experiment with new programs, initiatives and policies that could get them moving again, this time in a positive direction.
|POSITION||CITY and STATE||HOME MEDIAN VALUE||UNEMPLOYMENT 2013-14|
> Download Chart (Top 97 Cities) [.csv]
> Hide Cities Below
|10||Grand Rapids, MI||$103,500||7.80%|
|11||Fort Wayne, IN||$98,500||6.00%|
|14||El Paso, TX||$111,300||6.90%|
Many of these cities are unlikely to appear anytime soon on a list of "Best Cities for Families". Many have an "edge". There is an element of risk, danger, and uncertainty. Crime rates in these cities may be some of the highest in the country, and recent signs of economic progress may evaporate much more quickly than they appeared.
Other cities on our list (such as Columbus, Grand Rapids, Pittsburgh) are not only surviving but doing well in today's challenging economy. They lack that element of risk and danger found in some other Opportunity Cities, and are even very livable, but neither do they have that magic combination of quality of life and jobs that make them a magnet for new residents, which is why their home prices remain well below the national average.
Whether these cities are on our list because they are struggling or merely overlooked, these places have one huge advantage in today's economic climate - they are affordable.
Thanks to the recent recession and housing downturn, many Americans find they are priced out of their dream of home ownership. In some of our Opportunity Cities, homes and commercial space may be free to the person who will restore and care for them, with the hope that those properties will someday return to the tax rolls.
Our notion of Opportunity Cities really comes down to freedom, the freedom to pursue a dream that is more difficult, if not impossible, to realize in other places.
With these low barriers to entry, the young and/or bold can more readily start their own venture and find other likeminded souls nearby. The appeal of an Opportunity City is in building a future and being an urban pioneer, in much the same spirit as the homesteaders and '49ers of 150 years ago.
To retain a tight focus for our study, we looked for inexpensive home prices, low unemployment, and recent population growth in the general population (and specifically in the 25-39 year-old population).
To the goal of home ownership, we focused on home purchase costs, not rents which are more variable and not always tied to home prices. We also looked for indications that the local economy is on the upswing, by rewarding cities with low unemployment and a growing population.
A significant population of young people is important to a city's vitality, and an indication that young residents still see some hope for the future in their city. We concentrated on the age group of 25-39, measuring the percent of the overall population and the recent growth.
Side note - 25 years of age is usually the youngest age demographers consider as a young adult, because most students have graduated from college by that age. Including younger adults (21-24 for example) would give disproportionate weight to cities and towns which are home to a college or university.
We started our search for our top Opportunity Cities by restricting our search to cities, not metropolitan areas, which include an area's primary city or cities plus the surrounding suburbs. In many studies we want to include the suburbs, but in this case we wanted to reflect the current trend of locating close to or in the city core to take advantage of the increased population density and existing infrastructure such as loft space or storefronts.
There are over 40,000 cities and towns in the United States, but larger cities have an advantage when it comes to creating new opportunities. Larger cities have deeper pools of resources and talent that can be leveraged to better stretch limited resources.
To focus on larger cities, we included only those cities with a population over 150,000, which trimmed our list of candidate cities down to 164. By the way, these 164 cities are home to 24% of the U.S. population.
Our experience and research continually points to the economic benefits of affordability. Places, whether they are cities, neighborhoods, or even certain streets, are more likely to foster creative entrepreneurism when they have a low barrier of entry. If the housing is cheap and the rents are low, people are better able to afford the risk of starting a new business or taking a new job.
For our final candidates for top Opportunity Cities, we filtered out all the cities which had a median home price greater than $180,000, which is the current national average. This eliminated 64 additional cities and resulted in our final list of 97 cities. (Note: we also eliminated three "towns" which are more properly part of the Las Vegas township; Paradise, Sunrise Manor, and Spring Valley.)
Study categories and weights
House Median Value - 2014 Q1 (Sperling analysis of home sales records)
Unemployment rate - Jun 2014 (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Change in the unemployment rate - 1 year - Jul13-Jun14
Change in population - 2012-2008 (Census - American Community Survey)
Change in population age 25-39 - 2012-2010
Percent of population age 25-39 - 2012
Top Opportunity Cities for 2014
Our #1 Opportunity City for 2014 is Columbus Ohio, thanks to a winning combination of low home costs, low unemployment, increasing population and a high percentage of its population as young adults.
Northern New York State is represented by Rochester and Buffalo. These old centers of industry have been dealing with adversity for over half a century, and are actually better positioned than some places for future recovery. Syracuse would have probably been included in this list as well, if its population wasn't below our cutoff point.
In these old East Coast and Midwest industrial cities, there is a wealth of civic and cultural assets which remain from their golden age. Entrepreneurs are rediscovering these assets and have been investing in these currently battered cities.
If I had to vote for one city that is the best combination of Opportunity and Livability, I would probably choose Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was once known as the Steel City, but its industrial base has declined significantly with the city losing over half its population since 1950. Pittsburgh has been able to survive the resulting changes, to the point it has been suggested as an example to other aging industrial cities as a way to reinvent itself for the future in our new economy.
Philadelphia is another example of an old (maybe the oldest?) U.S. city which offers opportunity, and much more. With its large size providing a wealth of business, social and cultural resources, Philadelphia also has suburbs with a range of homes that range from petite to elite. There has been some anecdotal evidence that "creatives" , having been priced out of New York City, are setting up shop in what some call "The Sixth Borough", making weekly trips to the Big Apple for business and social connections.
Grand Rapids is another city whose economy has been tied to industry and manufacturing, but has been forced to pivot as these jobs moved offshore. It has survived by diversifying its economy into a variety of businesses and industries.
Our list of Opportunity Cities would probably not be complete without Detroit, which is mentioned repeatedly as an example of a city which is struggling to reposition itself after being abandoned by much of its population and businesses. Like some other top Opportunity Cities, it has decaying neighborhoods and a level of crime that is unsafe in parts of the city. But in the stories of its residents' struggle to fashion their future amid the chaos, there is hope for both the city and its citizens. Their experiences in Detroit can also be applied to other cities on our list.
As I said, I was inspired by my visits to these cities.
I met with a group of community advocates in Rockford IL, which are leading an effort named "Transform Rockford." This group is as well-organized, inclusive, focused and visionary as any similar organization I know of. I'm looking forward to see what happens in Rockford over the next two or three years.
The night we arrived in town, we were having a late dinner in a little Irish bar in Rockford when I met Pablo Korona, a local artist slash storyteller slash videographer slash entrepreneur. Pablo has a website (ourcityourstory.com) which hosts his text and videos about the citizens of Rockford. As he says on his site, "We tell the stories that if you live in Rockford, it makes you glad that you do. The stories that if you've never been to Rockford, they make you want to come here."
As Pablo spoke about his passion for his city and why he saw Rockford as the best place to realize his personal and professional vision, I felt that his own story might be the most insightful of all. I could see Pablo's story resonating with similar young people all across the country, and it helped me form the idea of these battered cities as cities of opportunity.
El Paso, located in westernmost Texas, is the world's capital of handmade cowboy boots. While there on a research trip, I made a point of visiting of Rocketbuster Boots, which creates custom cowboy boots that are functional works of art.
Self-titled "Bosslady" Nevena Christi ended up in El Paso after working as designer in New York City for Nicole Miller and Tiffany, preceded by training at Parson's School of Design and the Sorbonne in Paris.
Despite, or maybe because of, her cosmopolitan experience, Nevena left New York to realize her vision in a remote corner of Texas.
The story of Nevena and Rocketbuster illustrates the kind of quirky and amazing businesses that can take root in our Opportunity Cities, taking advantage of local resources.
And yeah, I had to get my own pair of Rocketbuster boots, a relatively modest pair which still garner comments whenever I wear them.
If you have stories (positive or negative) about your own Opportunity City, please share them with me. I'd love to hear your report.